Tracy Chevalier first gained attention by imagining the answer to one of art history's small but intriguing questions: Who is the subject of Johannes Vermeer's painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring"?
It was a bold move on Chevalier's part to build a story around the somewhat mysterious 17th-century Dutch painter and his unassuming but luminous subject; but the author's purist approach helped set the tone. "I decided early on that I wanted [Girl] to be a simple story, simply told, and to imitate with words what Vermeer was doing with paint," Chevalier told her college's alumni magazine. "That may sound unbelievably pretentious, but I didn't mean it as 'I can do Vermeer in words.' I wanted to write it in a way that Vermeer would have painted: very simple lines, simple compositions, not a lot of clutter, and not a lot of superfluous characters."
Chevalier achieved her objective expertly, helped by the fact that she employed the famous Girl as narrator of the story. Sixteen-year-old Griet becomes a maid in Vermeer's tumultuous household, developing an apprentice relationship with the painter while drawing attention from other men and jealousy from women. Praise for the novel poured in: "Chevalier's exploration into the soul of this complex but naïve young woman is moving, and her depiction of 17th-century Delft is marvelously evocative," wrote the New York Times Book Review. The Wall Street Journal called it "vibrant and sumptuous."
Girl with a Pearl Earring was not Chevalier's first exploration of the past. In The Virgin Blue, her U.K.-published first novel (due for a U.S. edition in 2003), her modern-day character Ella Turner goes back to 16th-century France in order to revisit her family history. As a result, she finds parallels between herself and a troubled ancestor -- a woman whose fate had been unknown until Ella discovers it.
With 2001's Falling Angels, Chevalier -- a former reference book editor who began her fiction career by enrolling in the graduate writing program at University of East Anglia -- continued to tell stories of women in the past. But she has been open about the fact that compared to writing Girl with a Pearl Earring, the "nightmare" creating of her third novel was difficult and fraught with complications, even tears. The pressure of her previous success, coupled with a first draft that wasn't working out, made Chevalier want to abandon the effort altogether. Then, reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible led Chevalier to change her approach. "[Kingsolver] did such a fantastic job using different voices and I thought, with Falling Angels, I've told it in the wrong way," Chevalier told Bookpage magazine. "I wanted it to have lots of perspective."
With that, Chevalier began a rewrite of her tale about two families in the first decade of 20th-century London. With more than ten narrators (some more prominent than others), Falling Angels has perspective in spades and lots to maintain interest over its relatively brief span: a marriage in trouble, a girlhood friendship born at Highgate Cemetery, a woman's introduction to the suffragette movement. A spirited, fast-paced story, Falling Angels again earned critical praise. "This moving, bittersweet book flaunts Chevalier's gift for creating complex characters and an engaging plot," Book magazine concluded.
Chevalier continues to pursue her fascination with art and history in her fourth novel, on which she is currently at work. According to Oberlin Alumni Magazine, she is basing the book on the Lady and the Unicorn medieval tapestries that hang in Paris's Cluny Museum.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Chevalier's interest in Vermeer extends beyond a fascination with one painting. "I have always loved Vermeer's paintings," Chevalier writes on her Web site. "One of my life goals is to view all thirty-five of them in the flesh. I've seen all but one -- ‘Young Girl Reading a Letter' -- which hangs in Dresden. There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them."
Chevalier moved from the States to London in 1984. "I intended to stay six months," she writes. "I'm still here." She lives near Highgate Cemetery with her husband and son.
The film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring is on the 2003 slate from Lions Gate Films, with Scarlett Johansson in the role of Griet and Colin Firth playing Vermeer.
Back to Top
In the winter of 2003, Tracy Chevalier answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
It's impossible to list just one! I would say more generally -- books that I read when I was a girl, that showed me how different worlds can be brought to life for a reader. My aunt likes to quote that when I was young I once said I was never alone when I had a book to read. (I don't remember saying that, but my aunt isn't prone to lying.) Those companions would be books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series; Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle; The Egypt Game by Zylpha Keatley Snyder; the Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken plus subsequent books in that series; and of course The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
What are your favorite books -- and why?
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- because of her acid wit that never turns cynical
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner -- showed me that point of view and how it is portrayed is key to storytelling
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery -- character and plot must go hand in hand, and she does it beautifully
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- for its charm not being swamped by its tragedy
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger -- for its voice and its humor/poignancy
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood --showed me how historical writing is done
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison -- for its interweaving of life and myth
I think that's enough!
- Some Like it Hot
- Breakfast at Tiffany's
- The Wizard of Oz
- Harold and Maude
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
- Thelma and Louise
- The Piano
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
- John Hiatt
- Bruce Springsteen
- Elvis Costello
- Counting Crows
- Haitian music, especially Sweet Mickey
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles -- a poetic novel about a girl in Missouri during the American Civil War. Beautifully written, its prose perfectly reflects a war-torn landscape. Great central characters. There's a lot to talk about because its plot and prose go hand in hand so well, also because it is a fascinating part of history -- Missouri was one of those states with both Union and Confederate supporters, and so the ambivalence of war is a big and endless topic.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I don't usually give novels as they are so subjective. I love to give and get history books and especially art and photography books.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Margaret Atwood, for her control of tone
Anne Tyler, for her characters
Lorrie Moore, for her humor
Sarah Waters, for her plots
Toni Morrison, for her complex layers of imagination
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a novel about a set of medieval tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn.
What else do you want your readers to know?
When I start a book, the first thing I do is find the right notebook for my research notes. It has to be the right color, the right texture, the right size. I glue things into it or onto the front cover. Then I'm ready to research and write.
I always write novels longhand to start with. I'll write what I need to write for that day, and then type it into the computer. I like the contact of the pen to page -- it feels more real than typing onto a screen. Also I type faster than I write, and I think my handwriting speed is more akin to my novel-thinking speed.
I tend to be on the outside looking in. Maybe that's why I'm an American living in the U.K. -- I stand on the sidelines and watch the culture function but (very naughty, this) don't take responsibility for it.
Back to Top